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Sparks - Big Beat CD (album) cover

BIG BEAT

Sparks

 

Crossover Prog

3.71 | 15 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
4 stars After Indiscreet showed that the band's UK art-glam approach had run its course, the brothers Mael decided it was time to do something totally different, so they returned to the US, picked up an entirely new group of session musicians and recorded an album closer to "normal" guitar rock than anything else in their catalogue. Aside from the vaudeville piano in "I Bought the Mississippi River" and some buried bits elsewhere, Ron's keyboards are essentially eliminated from the band's sound, and the emphasis of the sound is put squarely on the drums ... and the guitars and bass. Unfortunately, that sentence actually reflects the priority of the different instruments in the mix; the drums are jacked up REALLY HIGH in the mix (hence the title of the album), with the guitars sounding present but empty while the bass is present but has very little punch. It's very tempting to try and retcon an explanation for this along the lines of "Ron and Russell wanted a goofy mix to somehow satirize the fact that rock'n'roll is stylized dance music," but that's wishful thinking; the two ran away from this sound as fast as they could with their next album, and when I read that they considered the sound "bereft of personality," I get the sense that they felt this way as soon as they heard what the final pressing would sound like.

Fortunately, while the instrumentation is pretty bland and monotonous (excepting the final track), the album is still full of fascinating lyrics and strong hooks, so it's a nice listen regardless. For me, there are four tracks that are clearly top-notch, and the other seven tracks are all somewhere in the "good" range (except for "Confusion," which I find a bit of a throwaway, even if nothing about it is clearly bad). "I Bought Mississippi River," as mentioned, mingles vaudeville piano with the weird standard mix of the album, with Russell singing an awesome vocal melody set to lyrics about somebody who bought that river and now has to figure out what the hell to do with it. "Everybody's Stupid" is pure juvenile bile in the lyrics (but all the better for it; all of the verses are glorious) set to music heavily inspired by 50s rock and doo-wop, and high-pitched "Everybody's Stupid!!!" backing vocals over the extended coda never stop being funny (if, like me, you're secretly still 14 years old inside).

The other two great tracks bookend the second side and are amazing expressions of Russell/Ron's cynical attitudes towards women. "Throw Her Away (and Get a New One)" is everything I wish the bulk of the album could be, a magnificent speedy Cheap Trick-ish power pop number about the virtues of chasing younger women once your current flame has gotten a little out-of-date. It's a horrible sentiment, but it's a horrible sentiment expressed in the most memorable manner imaginable, and I can't resist singing along to the "Throw her away!!" backing vocals near the end if I'm alone. The final track of the album, "I Like Girls," had been part of the band's live repertoire since before Kimono, but hadn't received a satisfactory studio recording, and the arrangement (based around an awesome rising horn riff over a martial rhythm in the background, alternating with something more standard to the rest of the album) clearly betrays its earlier origins. The first verse sums up the tone of the song: "No one is restricted, no one is tied down/But the Greece of old collapsed 'cause/no one liked their girls/We won't have that problem, I'm doing my part/No one asked me but I'll still answer."

The rest of the album is mostly good, but the presentation is such that it rarely has a chance to rise far above it. The best of the lot is probably "Nothing to Do," which would have sounded magnificent if The Ramones had ever gotten around to covering it like Johnny Ramone wanted (the other band members declined), but still sounds good even with the guitars so muted. The opening "Big Boy" at least gives some clear justification to the beat- heavy mix (it's about a giant walking into town and wreaking havoc, though I'm not sure if it's about an actual giant or somebody with a giant penis), and the remaining two tracks on side one ("I Want to Be Like Everybody Else" and "Fill-er-up") are fun exercises in combining Chuck Berry licks with over-the-top spastic presentation of said licks (and, in the case of the latter, great lyrics about gorging on "fuel" with no consideration at all for the consequences). On side two, "Confusion" (as mentioned) doesn't do much for me, but the other two can't help but leave a pretty strong impression. In "Screwed Up," I'm still not actually sure how it is that anybody in the song is actually screwed up (as the chorus asserts), but the first verse is a real hoot, and the song feels like something resembling a real statement about the world at large more than most Sparks songs do, and I've always liked the tune, so I enjoy it a lot. Finally, "White Women" is about as racist, sexist and non-PC as Sparks can possibly be, but the drum heavy arrangement (with minimal guitar) really works with the song, and it's hard to imagine another context where hearing someone bellowing "AS LONG AS THEY'RE WHITE! AS LONG AS THEY'RE WHITE! As long as they're white from head to toe ..." would be so enjoyable.

All in all, this is a good album, but it really strikes me as a bit of a wasted opportunity, and it doesn't quite crack the top tier of Sparks albums for me. Still, there's a good chunk of great material, and this is the first album from the band to not have any tracks that I find intolerably obnoxious, and thus I'd have to recommend this to anybody who thinks they might be a Sparks fan. Just don't go into it with excessive expectations and you'll be fine.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |

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